British elections: The counting begins


8:55 p.m. ET — Brown re-elected ... Cameron a safe bet.

Gordon Brown has just been re-elected in his constituency in Fife in eastern Scotland.  He told the assembly at the counting hall, he would continue to "play his part" in creating "stable government" for Britain. Sufficiently ambiguous to be interpreted as a valedictory statement or a declaration of willingness to form a coalition government with the Liberal Democrats.

I am going to bed now with much up in the air.  I can safely predict that David Cameron will win his seat in Witney Oxfordshire again.  

Not much else can be safely predicted except this: Conservative and Labour senior figures will spend tonight trying to "shape the narrative" for when the fighting over who gets to form the next government begins in earnest tomorrow.  I think I need a good few hours rest now to be fresh to report on that battle.

8:15 p.m — Northern Ireland upset

This result is for people who follow every twist and turn in Northern Ireland:

Peter Robinson, head of the Democratic Unionist Party and First Minister of the Northern Ireland Assembly has lost his seat in Parliament. Robinson and his wife Iris were at the center of a sex and influence peddling scandal (she was the perpetrator of the scandalous, sex but the couple were perceived as a team).

This leaves the entire political process in the North, which is always poised on a knife edge, even more delicately balanced. Robinson in his concession speech was gracious and said he would continue as First Minister. However, his effectiveness may be decisively curtailed by this set back.

Meanwhile, there are reports of serious irregularities in voting in more than half a dozen constituencies nationwide. People who had been queuing for long periods of time were shut out when polls closed at 10 p.m. In one constituency, election officials ran out of ballot papers and had to shut down. All together hundreds of voters have been disenfranchised, some in very close races. A group of Sheffield students who were unable to vote have set up a Facebook page Results in those seats may be challenged.

7:10 p.m. ET — Lessons (not learned)

In an unprecedented move London's bond markets will open at 1 a.m. local time, giving the boys in the City — the capital's financial district — a chance to dump, short and otherwise mess with British government debt. 

Given the violent mood swings on Wall Street Thursday and the violent street demonstrations in Athens over the last two days, allowing traders a chance to trade government bonds before the vote is actually counted is like giving a crack addict a hundred bucks and the choice between taking a taxi to a crack den or a 12-step program.

I expect that tomorrow's stories in the Conservative press, based on the overnight trading session, will be: Bond Markets say no to hung parliament and weak government. David Cameron will probably cite those articles in making his bid to form a government.

The parliamentary seats around Sheffield continue to go Labour.  No surprise, the steel town and university center is the party's heartland. 

David Miliband, a favorite to succeed Gordon Brown as Labour leader should Brown resign — a possibility if the result is as the exit polls predict —  told Sky News, "If no party had an absolute majority, no party had a moral right to rule in government." 

He called the hung parliament an "injunction from the British people for politicians to talk to each other," inferring they should form a coalition government.

6:15 p.m. ET — First results

The first result came in around 45 minutes after polls closed. Labour's Bridget Phillipson has held Sheffield South for her party. Read nothing into it. Sheffield is Labour territory except for the suburbs where it is Lib Dem land.

5:30 p.m. — Polls close

British polls closed a few minutes ago and first exit polls have been released: According to the BBC, Britain is heading for a hung parliament with the Conservatives projected to win the most seats, 307 — 19 short of a majority. Labour is predicted to win 255 seats and the Liberal Democrats would get 59.

Senior figures from all parties immediately hit the TV studios to start spinning what this would mean if the polls are accurate. Michael Gove, who would be education secretary in a Conservative government, claimed the polls showed the result was a "comprehensive rejection of Gordon Brown and a vote for change." Gove told the BBC it was entirely possible that when all the votes are counted the Conservatives might actually have a majority of seats.

Now the process of counting the ballots begins. It should be a straightforward process. There are no butterfly ballots, so no hanging chads in Britain. No voting machines either. Every one gets a paper ballot and puts an X by the name of the candidate of his or her choice. That means all ballots have to be counted by hand. First results are not expected until shortly before midnight, or 7 p.m. Eastern. It will be two in the morning local time before enough results have come in to confirm or disprove the exit polls. In more than 20 constituencies counting won't actually begin until tomorrow.

It is possible that a new government may not be formed until Monday.

In the meantime, watch this space for updates.